Umberto Eco wrote this short treatise 50-some years ago. It was re-released in the 80s (after the success of Name of the Rose, I hazard the guess?) inUmberto Eco wrote this short treatise 50-some years ago. It was re-released in the 80s (after the success of Name of the Rose, I hazard the guess?) in a new translation with a new, humble introduction by the author. It is still an engaging read for anyone interested in medieval art or the development, in general, of western aesthetics.
Like most medievalists, Eco writes of medieval thought as though he were defending its intelligence, complexity and dignity from virulent detractors. It has been a rarely-taught and poorly (or prejudicially) understood historical whipping boy for centuries. I'm not convinced this de rigueur combative stance is any less necessary these days. Every other period after the fall of Rome and before the industrial revolution seems to have joined the lonely Middle Ages in terms of representing (to the ill-informed modern imagination) all things backward, superstitious and hopelessly ignorant. In any event, the Middle Ages still gets wildly inaccurate and fanciful treatment in film and literature, and academics who do not explicitly study the Middle Ages tend to look at it as niche, useless to broader inquiries, or otherwise irrelevant to anything but the study of itself.
In this interesting brief volume, Eco traces the development of theories of aesthetics and art from the late Classical period through the high Middle Ages. In doing so, he depicts a people dwelling in an integrated world where "beautiful" and "useful" are synonymous and where man's creation is wan mimicry of God's creation which is, in turn, only a veil of seeming over God's even more perfect ideal. But he also depicts an intellectual world that, far from stagnant or over-determined by dogma, was capable of growth, of subtlety and of pure joy at contemplating physical (natural or artistic) beauty. In fact, he finds in the Middle Ages the seeds of artistic individualism, in art's move from the monastery or workshop to the autocrat's court, that would famously sprout into the effective cult status of Renaissance and later artists.
Medieval thought, on art and beauty as on everything else, was in answer to highly specific and Judeo-Christo-centric theological problems. For the most part, we are asking different kinds of ontological questions these days. But this fact does not make medieval answers to medieval questions any less reasoned or any more fallacious. In fact, their questions and answers might even prove enlightening to us if we, for a moment, imagine our own period as one that suffers from a lack of an idea taken quite for granted by medieval European culture - the integrative quality of art, life, creation and morality.
In any event, if we cultivate a modicum of knowledge about our medieval ancestors, it might be easier to realize when our own ignorance - not their illogicality or irrelevance - is the thing precluding us from a deeper understanding of them. ...more
There are (at least) two Umberto Ecos: the historical novelist of intricate, intellectually-driven plotlines and the pithy, witty essayist who commentThere are (at least) two Umberto Ecos: the historical novelist of intricate, intellectually-driven plotlines and the pithy, witty essayist who comments on current events. Stylistically, these Ecos bear little resemblance to each other. They seem, instead, to share a teleological source, a general impulse, that is characterized by viewing everything always through the matrix of semiotics (well, that, and an encyclopedic knowledge of cultural references, arcane and popular, that allows me to mentally categorize Eco with the great compilers of history like Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville, rather than with any modern author).
And, of course, he is a professor of semiotics, so there's a third Eco, maybe the original Eco - those novelist and essayist fellows are only moonlighters anyway. For Eco, the world is a field of signs and he delights in deciphering not only what they may mean, but how they may mean and to whom. As I have said, all of Eco's work (and I suspect, his life) relies upon semiotic thinking, but Travels in Hyperreality may be the finest example I have yet read of his ability to translate into easily readable prose the dense patterns of meaning and signification that persist all around us in everyday life. In Travels, Eco tackles terrorism, television, cult film, charismatic cult leaders, sporting events and more.
These essays were originally published in a variety of periodicals from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, however they do not seem dated so much as they challenge a contemporary reader to familiarize herself with past "signs"; like the Red Brigades kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the Jonestown horror or Casablanca. His topics may no longer feel contemporary, but his thoughts on them certainly do. For example, in the essay "Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare," he explores the disparity between controlling a medium and controlling a message. Even though the essay was written in 1967, when television was the most ubiquitous, instantaneous example of a communications medium, Eco's thinking is so sound that I wish the internet had been around then so he could have included an analysis of it. In fact, in true Jules-Vernian fashion, Eco's nod toward the future of communications almost presages a medium that would achieve what the internet has achieved: "[T]he constant correction of perspectives, the checking of codes, the ever renewed interpretations of mass messages." (144) (Eco actually imagined the proliferation of face-to-face contact between people, but I think the internet is metaphorically related to his vision of "semiological guerrilla warfare".)
The icing on all of this delicious cake comes, for me, in the following essays: "Travels in Hyperreality," "Dreaming of the Middle Ages," and "Living in the New Middle Ages."
In "Travels in Hyperreality," Eco examines what he perceives as the American obsession with minutely imagined, more-real-than-real (yes, "hyper" real) fakes. He traveled from coast to coast visiting wax museums, Disneyland and Disney World, San Simeon, etc., etc. He concludes that all of this fascination with "genuine" fakes has to do with America's relationship to its own history. With the exception of New Orleans (three cheers!), Eco found that most American destinations seem to put forth these hyperrealized fakes in order to fill a gap left by what Americans themselves must perceive as a lack of history. Having grown up in the "younger" west, I cannot but agree - things are razed and built over, you are taught that history, in its "proper" WASP-ish sense, began with the first white people (non-Spanish-speaking white people, that is), all other American history is hyphenated, niche history and belongs to someone else -- even if you are one of those "hyphenated, niche" Americans you receive this lesson through the funnel of dominant popular culture. And so we recreate, for example, an Italian cultural artefact like DaVinci's "Last Supper" in glorious three-dimensional wax and we look at it to the sound of classical music and we somehow know that seeing this is even better than seeing some flat, crumbling old painting on a wall somewhere.*
Or another example: one of our illustrious citizens, William Randolph Hearst, creates a European palace in bricolage of genuine antique items and accurately rendered fake antique items, jumbled together to reveal nothing more than the ludicrous and offensive wealth of their owner. I found all of this analysis accurate if uncharitable, and yet not mean spirited in any way. I would venture a guess that Eco is actually a great fan of many American cultural products, including Disneyland (though I get the sense he loathes Hearst on principle, but I'm American and and so do I). He simply can't help dissecting these products to see how they work. And if any of Eco's conclusions here annoy you, a remedy may be the delightful episode of This American Life called "Simulated Worlds" from October 11, 1996 and actually inspired by Eco's essay. It includes a piece where Ira Glass visits Medieval Times accompanied by medieval historian Michael Camille (Eco, Camille, Glass -- could they have found another of my heroes to somehow involve??). Pure gold.
Which brings me to the two essays dealing with the contemporary medieval, both how we consider the Middle Ages today and how we are, today, medieval. I think these essays also still ring true, even at the distance of 20-odd years. We do still dream of the Middle Ages, as the success of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter books will tell us. What we do not do in our popular culture is define what we actually mean by "medieval". Eco elucidates the "Ten Little Middle Ages" he believes we are all talking about when we call this movie, that book or this aesthetic "medieval". I will not recount all ten here, but the important point about the whole exercise is that the Middle Ages, as historical time period, is not the point. Well, it is periodically the point (for historians and fastidious researchers like Eco), but by and large pop culture references to the medieval, explicit or implicit, really only speak to a set of stereotypes gleaned from what we require the Middle Ages to have been for our present day purposes.
That is, they were barbaric if the film/book/what-have-you-thing uses the Middle Ages to dwell on or idealize violence. They were superstitious if the thing requires a sense of magic. They were overly religious if it requires oppression. The important aspect of each "Little" Middle Age is that it reflects our idea of the Middle Ages rather than the Middle Ages' own idea of itself. Only the historian (or the historically-minded individual, an endangered species in America) asks what a medieval person understood about their own world. As perhaps, in the future, only historians will ask what we understand about our world. Meanwhile, the pop culture of tomorrow will be using us as fodder for their own aspirations, prejudices and dreams. And perhaps we, too, will be considered a Middle Age. Eco already sees our era so: a time period of upheaval, shifting power structures and cultural revolution. "Naturally," he observes, "the whole process is characterized by plagues and massacres, intolerance and death. Nobody says that the Middle Ages offer a completely jolly prospect. As the Chinese said, to curse someone: 'May you live in an interesting period.'" (85) We do.
*NB: Eco's conclusions have more to do with the intent of these fakes than with the experiences of audiences actually viewing them. He's unpacking the semiotics of the message from the sender's perspective, I take it, more than from the receiver's....more
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana tells of an antiquarian book dealer who has suffered a stroke and lost all memory of the people in and events of hThe Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana tells of an antiquarian book dealer who has suffered a stroke and lost all memory of the people in and events of his life. At the novel's outset, the protagonist, Yambo, begins the daunting work of trying to reinsert himself into the life he has forgotten. He finds that he does not recognize his family or closest friends, but can still appraise a 17th-century work of natural history. His only sparks of memory relate to books he has read. These come back to him in snippets. Names, quotations, plotlines. Yambo laments to his wife that his memory is made of paper. In an attempt to reconnect with any memories of real people or actual events, he takes a solitary trip back to his childhood home in a rustic town called Solara. At Solara, Yambo finds more books.
The majority of The Mysterious Flame describes these books and how, poring over them at 60, Yambo imagines what he must have taken from them as a child. This central portion of The Mysterious Flame, the meat of the novel, is filled with images from the books, magazines and comics Yambo finds, which is a wonderful boon to Eco's readers in following Yambo's mental journey. Performing this task of self-rediscovery, Yambo concocts an elaborate method of reference and cross-reference to try and reclaim memories of himself at 7, at 10, at 13. For example, as he reads a comic book from his 6th grade year, he plays music that would have been current, looks at newspapers from the period to give himself context of world events at that time, tracks down his school notebooks to retrieve what he may have thought when he read this book or that.
The more Yambo reads, however, the farther his pre-stroke memory retreats. With every book he encounters, he creates a new memory of himself as a child interpreted by himself as an old man, but without actually remembering that childhood as he lived it. Is knowing what he read as a child enough to infer who he was or who he became? Yambo's struggles to connect ink on pages to the living boy he once was accentuate the edifice of memory and the extent to which we interpret and meticulously craft even a "genuine" memory. As we follow Yambo's efforts, Eco invites us to consider the connection between what we read, what we think and who we are, between lived experience and read experience, between knowledge gleaned in the world and knowledge gleaned through the written word. It brings to my mind a pet metaphor of medieval monks, which compares reading to eating. To read is to consume a whole, digest it, and to absorb its nutrients. If you are what you eat, as they say, then to the medieval scholar you are, literally, what you read. What one reads becomes one's identity insofar as it crafts one's thoughts and helps determine one's actions. This view of identity as thought does not conform neatly with current fixations on identity as deed, but as with so much from the Middle Ages, I think we benefit from entertaining such ideas and I was tickled, if not surprised, to discover them floating around in a work by Eco, a consummate medievalist by temperament if not by trade.
I will not here reveal the final issue of Yambo's labors because whether or not he recovers his memory constitutes the point of tension upon which the plot relies for its momentum. I had intended to address my single criticism of this novel, but it seems wiser now to glance over it if not swallow it completely. It pertains to Yambo's adolescent view of women, and one woman in particular, a view I found discordant with the otherwise rather acute emotional as well as academic intelligence of the character. Would a man so obsessed with the mind really carry a lifelong torch for a boyhood crush based solely on appearance? But none of us is consistent, so perhaps this is no criticism at all, and merely an observation of what I found unlikable about Eco's protagonist. When I remember reading this book and what I took from it, this will probably be a detail I will selectively omit, crafting my memory willfully, so that I recall only my enjoyment of the book, which was considerable. ...more